• Photo for This or That: Squats vs. Front Squats
    Photo Credit: Nicolas Smith

This or That: Squats vs. Front Squats

By Devin Wicks

Welcome to "This or That?", a weekly series in which I will try to help demystify the different exercises you can do in the gym. There are many familiar exercises that seem very similar. But which should you do to accomplish what result? In this series, I'll try to give some answers. This week I'd like to take a look at two types of barbell squats—the familiar back squat, and the much less widely used front squat. Squats are the most basic exercise you can do for the lower body, and with their emphasis on integrated and functional strength, arguably the best as well. But you should use more than one type of squat to give your workouts diversity and challenges. With an understanding of how to do both of these exercises, you can really flesh out your lower body workouts.

Back Squat
Everyone thinks they know how to do a squat, but it's easy to get this exercise wrong, particularly if you carry the weight of the bar in the wrong place. Start with the barbell on a rack. Position barbell across your shoulders so that it rests on the trapezius a bit higher than the posterior deltoid. The bar should be on the very top of your upper back, behind your shoulders, rather than across the top of your shoulders, behind your neck. Grasp the bar with a firm grip, hands at a comfortable width and elbows back. Inhale deeply to create intrathoracic pressure. This will help prevent the torso from collapsing. Slightly arch your back and add a slight posterior (rearward) pelvic tilt while contracting the abdominal core. Look straight ahead and lift the bar off the rack. Position yourself so your feet are approximately shoulder width apart with either a parallel or slightly turned-out foot position (use the most comfortable position). Bend forward from the hips (not the back) and begin lowering without rounding your back. Keep your knees in line with your feet. When your thighs are horizontal to the floor, begin straightening the legs and lifting the torso to the start position. Note: the hips and shoulders should lower and raise at the same speed and at the same time.

Here's the run-down of what you accomplish with this exercise:

  1. Works the entire lower and middle body: This exercise works the quadriceps, gluteal muscles, adductor muscles, hamstrings, erector spinae and abdominal muscles. It is an essential exercise for keeping balanced strength through the entire system of muscles of the legs and hips.
  2. Focus on your glutes: The back squat version works the front of the body as well, but it particularly focuses more work on the glutes and is great for developing gluteal shape.
So, the basic squat will hit all of the major muscles of the middle body, and will help to develop core strength, though it focuses most heavily on the glutes. Now let's take a look at what happens if you move the bar around to the front of your body for the front squat.

Front Squat
The front squat variation starts with the bar resting on the anterior delts and upper pectorals, so on the upper chest at the front of the shoulder. You will use an over hand grip (palms face-up) on the bar. Keep the chest lifted and raise the elbows so they point forward and the upper arms are parallel or close to parallel with the floor. Your lower body position is the same as in the back squat. Inhale deeply to keep the intrathoracic pressure, slightly arch the back, contract the abdominal core and lower until thighs are horizontal keeping the back upright. Don’t lean forward.

Here's the different benefits you will get from this variation:
  1. Quadriceps-intensive: Like the back squat, the front squat works the quadriceps, the gluteal muscles, hamstrings, abdominals and erector spinae. But the forward position puts a greater focus on the front of the legs, and on the quadriceps.
  2. Caution advised: Front squats are more difficult than back squats, and so should be done using less weight than you typically would squat. Also, the forward position of the front squat can be tricky to manage for those unaccustomed to it. You need to be careful not to lean forward as you do this exercise. One way to insure this is to place low blocks under your heels. This will help to keep you in a more correct position.
As you might guess, a back squat focuses on the back of the body (your glutes), where a front squat puts the load on your quadriceps in the front of the thighs. Both are part of a well-rounded lifting program, but be aware that they are not the same, and that the front squat will take some practice to master. Start off slow if you have not done them before.

About Devin Wicks: Devin Wicks (ACSM-HFI, USAW Club Coach) is creator of the RealJock Strength Foundation 12-Week Workout program and the fitness operations director at the University of California, Berkeley, where he acts as specialty strength coach for some of the university's premier sports teams, and is coordinating a pioneering new campus employee wellness program.